(CN) — During the final debate between presidential candidates Joe Biden and Donald Trump, moderator Kristen Welker turned the debate to the question of foreign policy asking each candidate about foreign interference in America’s elections.
It was rather fitting that the first question about foreign policy, arguably the arena of the federal government over which the president has the most influence, was essentially a question about the domestic affairs of the country.
The Trump-Biden contest is unprecedented in many ways, given its occurrence amid a pandemic that has constrained each candidate from running traditional campaigns, but relative to past contests for the White House, it stands out in how little foreign policy has been substantively discussed.
“With public health, economic, racial justice and climate crises bearing down on the United States, foreign policy questions like the future of America’s longest-ever war in Afghanistan and Washington’s approach to curbing Iran’s nuclear program, have been relegated to the back burner,” said Rebecca Lisner, co-author of “An Open World: How America Can Win the Contest for Twenty-First-Century Order.”
It’s not solely Afghanistan and Iran, vestiges of America’s War on Terror, which has receded into the background, according to foreign policy experts.
“In some of the recent elections, foreign policy was so central to the debates because ongoing wars were so central at the time,” said Jeremy Pressman, a foreign policy expert at the University of Connecticut.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, American foreign policy was dominated by questions surrounding the continuation of the Iraq War, how troops were faring in Afghanistan and other questions related to the War on Terror, Barack Obama’s red line on Syria, conditions in Libya and how to manage Iran’s proxy war with Saudia Arabia.
These questions are simply no longer as salient to most Americans.
“Whatever you say about Trump’s foreign policy record, he didn’t initiate any new conflicts,” Pressman said.
That and many critics of the Trump administration saw his own flirtation with autocracy and authoritarian instincts as a more existential threat to American institutions than any foreign actor.
As Michael Hahn of the NYU School of Law put it:
“U.S. democracy promotion efforts abroad seem a bit absurd at a time when voting rights are under assault right here at home.”
Pressman agreed, saying much of the current debate is inward-looking as many on both sides of the political spectrum feel those on the other side are an imminent and existential threat to the nation and their values.
“There’s just not as much oxygen to look beyond our borders,” Pressman said.
It’s not to say foreign policy and the affairs of the world suddenly lack consequence in the domestic sphere.
After all, Trump became the third president to be impeached, but the first one to be impeached over a foreign policy matter. However, it’s telling that issue mostly played out in the domestic sphere, with prominent Trump supporters dismissing charges that the president inappropriately leaned on a foreign leader in exchange for personal political gain because most Americans wouldn’t be able to identify Ukraine on a map.
But Trump’s foreign policy, while at times incoherent, was consequential.
Despite the Trump administration’s ratification of the Abraham Accords, where Arab countries Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates agreed to normalize relations with Israel, the nation’s focus has swerved from the Middle East to a rising China.
“Unlike most of the post-Cold War period, the United States is no longer the world’s uncontested superpower and China’s rise means that Washington and Beijing will be competing to write the rules of the road for 21st-century international politics,” Lissner said.